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The Roman Empire was the largest and most powerful state in Antiquity. The climax of the empire was between 200BC to 200AD when the Romans enjoyed economic prosperity and cultural advancement. Over this period, Rome engaged in an expansionist quest as it sought to acquire more territory in Europe.1 However, this empire, which had reigned for over 2000 years, started crumbling in the second century and eventually collapsed in the fifth century. While many factors contributed to this dramatic collapse, the Barbarians played a major role in Rome’s demise. This paper will provide a brief but informative discussion on the history of the people referred to as the barbarians.
Who Were the Barbarians?
The term “barbarian” was a Greco-Roman generalization for everyone who was foreign. This term was first used by the Greek to refer to all of those who did not speak Greek or those who spoke the language with some difficulty.2 During the reign of the Roman Empire, the term was used to mean “foreigner” or “alien.” The barbarians were distinguished from the Romans in that they had different languages, cultures, and traditions to those of Rome. The Romans saw themselves as advanced people, possessing superior culture and customs when compared to foreign groups. The term “barbarian” carried a negative association due to the tendency of groups to view foreigners with distrust and attribute unfavorable qualities to them.3
The barbarians were the people who inhabited the area beyond the Roman imperial borders. It is important to note that the barbarians were not a uniform group, and they were often divided into people with different cultures, religions, and languages. The population bordering the Roman Empire included “the Irish and Picts of the British Isles, the highly civilized Persians on the Syrian Frontier, the Berbers of North Africa, Asiatic nomads like the Sarmatians, and many other4 However, the Romans used the term “barbarians” on the entire population; therefore making it seem like these diverse neighbors were a homogeneous community.
The most historically significant barbarian groups were the Germanic-speaking inhabitants of the region beyond the western imperial border. These people were separated from the Roman Empire by the river Rhine and Danube, which served as natural boundaries as well as defenses for the Romans.5 These inhabitants were few in number, and they lived in many small villages over the vast area beyond the western imperial border. The population of the barbarians was restricted by their inability to produce enough food to sustain a huge population.
Historians explain that the primitive agricultural technology caused the soil to lose its fertility after some time forcing the barbarians to migrate to fresh lands.6 This constant migration, combined with the low population growth-retarded development of the inhabitant’s political structures. Lack of resources meant that the military capabilities of the barbarians were diminished. Individual groups lacked the wealth and manpower to form strong warrior groups, and they could only engage in occasional raids.
Relationship with the Romans
There were interactions between the barbarians and the Roman Empire for many centuries. In the centuries BC, Rome conquered as many barbarians as it needed to and made use of them for manpower. By use of military force and economic incentives, Rome was able to ensure the loyalty of various barbarian tribes. In some cases, Rome allowed the Barbarians to settle on the imperial side of the border and engage in economic activities there.7 During this period, the barbarians were introduced to Roman agricultural techniques.
This contributed to the explosion in tribal populations and the establishment of stabilized settlements by the barbarians on both sides of the border. By the third century, the barbarians had achieved significant economic and socio-political progress. Due to the agricultural advances, larger tribes were formed. The large barbarian tribes established complex administration systems that borrowed heavily from the Roman organizational structures. The barbarians copied some aspects of Roman rule in establishing their own administration system.8
As the political structures became better organized, the wealthy barbarian rulers developed the capability to support large warrior classes. The confederation of tribal chiefs could raise an army of up to 10,000 men posing a significant military threat to the Romans.9 Another important development was the discovery of iron deposits in the Barbarian territories in the second century. This event contributed to the strengthening of the barbarians. With the discovery of ore deposits outside of Roman control, barbarians gained unlimited access to iron and they could engage in the production of weapons. Tribal chiefs were now able to equip their men with superior weaponry making them equally matched with the Romans during combat.
Owing to the population expansion and increase in military capability by the barbarians outside the Roman borders, there grew more pressure to cross into imperial borders. There was a desire by the barbarians to find better land and this existed on the Roman side of the borders.10 In 166Ad, the barbarian tribes of Langobardi and Ubii conducted a widespread attack on cities in the Roman Empire and proceeded to establish their settlements there. This set a precedence for powerful tribes demanding to cross the borders and settle within the empire over the next many decades.
Barbarian Victory over Romans
From the second century onwards, the barbarians engaged in widespread raids on Roman towns. Unlike the previous century raids that were periodic and small, these new raids were frequent and expansive. The primary goal of the barbarians was to settle on Roman territory and enjoy the better economic opportunities available there. The Romans were forced to make a number of treaties with the barbarians to prevent or reduce the attacks. Historians acknowledge that the treaties were primarily a means of defense or a preparation for expansion by the Romans.11
Rome did not have any intention to assimilate the outsiders into becoming Roman citizens. Rome did not seek to assimilate with the barbarians since it felt that the barbarians would alter Roman life and drag it down from its high level of civility.12 Barbarian attacks within imperial borders continued over the third century and amid these attacks, some tribes attempted large-scale migration into the Roman lands. By the end of the third century, the barbarians had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
Rome acknowledged the great threat posed by the barbarians to the Empire. In AD 269, Emperor Claudius Gothicus stated, “The war against [the usurper] Postumus concerns me, but the barbarian war affect the state, and its interests must be considered first”.13 This demonstrates that the Romans recognized that the barbarians were an existential threat to the empire. However, the great political upheaval being experienced in Rome from the second century made it hard for a decisive blow to be dealt against the barbarians. In this period in history, the Empire was facing increasing challenges for the throne from usurpers.
These challengers were from the Senatorial class and individual army generals. Faced with these security challenges, the Roman Empire had to choose between fighting a foreign enemy in the form of the barbarians or a domestic challenger. Most Roman emperors chose to concentrate on the internal enemies therefore ignoring the barbarians. Records reveal that most emperors enrolled barbarian troops to fight off challenger.14 At the same time, the challengers also paid barbarians to attack and divide the forces of the emperor. The position of the barbarians was therefore improved as they gained resources from rival factions within Rome.
Barbarians Control Europe
One of the largest barbarian influx into Roman territory occurred during the fourth century when a Hun-led coalition of barbarians started advancing towards the Danube frontier. This Hun-led army forced barbarians to flee towards the Roman border for protection.15 The displaced Goth barbarians were settled within Rome’s imperial border under Roman control. However, the displaced barbarians experienced acute food shortage and this caused them to go on a rampage inside the Empire.
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Between 377 and 382, the barbarians engaged Roman troops in intense battles that led to significant military loses for the Romans. In the end, Rome was forced to make peace agreements that essentially allowed the barbarians to settle within the Roman provinces. This success led to more barbarian tribes attempting to cross over the weakly defended border in the imperial region. Between 395 and 410AD, the Romans suffered major losses as they tried to stop the large-scale barbarian invasions.16 Without the military strength to repeal them, the Romans allowed the barbarians to settle in various provinces.
Rome hoped to control the barbarians settled within the empire. However, this proved to be an impossible task since the barbarians had their own rules and strong armies. They resisted Roman control and engaged in raids against other barbarian settlements. This destabilized the Roman Empire and led to a decline in revenue to the imperial administration.
Without sufficient funds, Rome’s once mighty army was reduced to a weak force that was no match to the barbarian war bands. By the end of the fifth century, Rome had fallen to the forces of barbarian warriors. By the end of the start of the sixth century, Roman rule in the western provinces had been replaced with barbarian rule.17 Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the various barbarian tribes formed independent kingdoms that evolved into what is now Modern Europe.
This paper set out to provide a brief but informative history of the barbarians. It began by identifying who these people were and the geographical region they occupied. The paper has noted that the barbarians were a diverse and disunited lot. They only appeared to form a collective from the Roman point of view. The paper has then highlighted the role that the Roman Empire played in the advancement of the barbarians. It then discussed the desire by the barbarians to move into Roman controlled land. The paper has shown how the barbarians contributed to the birth of Modern Europe by immigrating into the Imperial land and forming kingdoms there.
Barnwell, Paul. Emperor, Prefects & Kings: The Roman West, 395-565. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Print.
Burns, Thomas. Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.–A.D. 400, Part 400. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003. Print.
Goffart, Walter. “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians.” American Historical Review 86.2(1981): 275-306. Print.
Richards, Gabriel. “Why Rome Fell.” Military History 30.3(2013): 36-45. Print.
- Gabriel Richards, “Why Rome Fell,” Military History 30.3(2013): 36.
- Walter Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians,” American Historical Review 86.2(1981): 277.
- Goffart 277.
- ” Goffart 278.
- Richards 36.
- Richards 36.
- Thomas Burns, Rome, and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.–A.D. 400, Part 400 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003) 141.
- Paul Barnwell, Emperor, Prefects & Kings: The Roman West, 395-565 (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) 51.
- Richards 39.
- Barnwell 150.
- Goffart 280.
- Burns 123.
- Goffart 283.
- Burns 231.
- Barnwell 151.
- Richards 40.
- Goffart 286.